An imaginative approach to teaching

Kieran Egan



A couple of days ago, as I was sitting wondering how to begin this book, my two grandchildren were playing under my desk with some cardboard boxes they had brought up from the basement. I know that in fifty years I’ll look back at such moments as wonderfully rich experiences, but at the time it was a bit irritating and a distraction, as I was anxiously trying to think about how to start writing about education and imagination.

Then Joshua said, “This’ll be our house, OK, Jordan?”

“OK,” said Jordan.

And then they began an involved adventure that involved some “mom and dad” talk, and after about ten minutes had them emerging to ask me to cut out windows in one of the boxes, “and another bigger one for the door.” The trouble with thinking about education and imagination, of course, is that you are inclined not to notice it underfoot! I realized that what had been distracting me was exactly what I was supposed to be thinking about. How do we bring that easy imaginative engagement of young children to the learning of algebra and history and so on throughout their years of schooling? That is what I think I know how to do, and that is what this book is about.

A New Approach to Teaching and Learning

The main idea here is that engaging students’ imaginations is crucial to successful learning. If we want to be able to routinely engage students’ imaginations in learning, we must understand the main cognitive tools they have available for the task We must shape our lessons to take advantage of their cognitive and help develop those tools further.

Imagination is too often seen as something peripheral to the core of education, something taken care of by allowing students time to “express themselves” in “the arts,” while the proper work of educating goes on in the sciences and math and in developing conventionally efficient literacy. In the approach described here, imagination is at the center of education; it is seen as crucial to any subject, mathematics and science no less than history and literature. Imagination can be the main workhorse of effective learning if we yoke it to education’s central tasks.

Of course, everyone knows that engaging students’ imaginations in learning is one key to successful teaching. Over the years we have seen many suggestions for how to do this, but making its achievement a routine part of the classroom experience has proven quite elusive. The aim of this book, and of the Web site that supports it—and of the series of books I hope will follow—is to make imaginative teaching and learning accessible to everyone in a new way.

This approach is unique in two important ways: It provides a new way of understanding how students’ imaginations work in learning, and it does so in a way that suggests specific teaching techniques. This book includes frameworks and examples that support teachers in planning lessons and units that engage students’ imagination and emotions.

The mention of emotions might be a bit unexpected, but it is crucial because the imagination is tied in complex ways with our emotional lives. Students don’t need a throbbing passion for learning algebra or a swooning joy in learning about punctuation, but successful education does require some emotional involvement of the student with the subject matter. All knowledge is human knowledge and all knowledge is a product of human hopes, fears, and passions. To bring knowledge to life in students’ minds we must introduce it to students in the emotional context [KE: I prefer the original]in which it finds its fullest meaning. The best tool for doing this is the imagination. This book is about how we can ensure this happens routinely in every classroom every day.

A Very Brief History of Learning

But getting to this new approach has not been easy. I suppose our educational problems began about a quarter of a million years ago—not that I intend to work up to the present year by year. According to the current evolutionary story, that was the period of the last rapid burst of brain growth in our hominid ancestors. This growth presented a particular problem to half the members of our ancestors’ societies. The female pelvis had to widen to allow these bigger-brained babies to be born, but it couldn’t widen so much that rapid walking would become difficult or impossible. For some reason, having bigger brains gave a significant advantage to these hominids, and so those with the bigger brains had more chances to have children, and so the brain growth continued. But there was obviously a limit to how far the architecture of the female pelvis could accommodate to what might well be an evolutionary advantage but was a major pain in childbirth. The pain has remained, but a solution of a kind was worked out.
The solution was that humans began to give birth while their babies’ brains were immature, and the bulk of the brain’s growth took place outside the womb. You can get a sense of the scale of this solution by comparing modern human brains and their growth with that of our chimpanzee cousins. Both of us have a brain of about 350 cubic centimeters at birth. As it grows to adulthood, the chimpanzee adds around another hundred cubic centimeters, whereas the human adds well over a thousand cubic centimeters, and most of that growth occurs in the first few years of life.
What is going on? What is the use of all this extra brain tissue that has cost so many of our species so much pain and trouble? It seems to be tied up with symbols, or at least a lot of it is. Unlike all other species, we are fantastically clever at associating sounds and images with meanings. Clever us. But this is also the source of nearly all our educational problems. Some of the symbols we learn and use seem fairly simple for us. Indeed, they are so simple that we cannot not learn them in normal circumstances. In a language-using environment, children cannot fail to learn the language or languages used around them. If two languages are in use, they will learn them both and hardly ever confuse them. Quite remarkable.

Language and Literacy

After a couple of hundred thousand years or more—I told you the history would move fast—people invented ways of representing language in written symbols. This is an enormously clever trick, later made even more useful by some people in the east of the Mediterranean who simplified the symbols to represent the sounds of language. The ancient Greeks brought this trick to even greater refinement by constructing a compact alphabet learnable by almost everyone. We haven’t made any significant advance on their alphabet since. The trouble with this clever trick is that it both justified the profession of educator and left us with some subtle and not-so-subtle problems to deal with.

The not-so-subtle problems appear when we set about teaching children to read and write alphabetic symbols and recognize how they resemble oral language as means of representing thoughts and feelings and conveying information. If we work hard at this, or make the children work hard, most of them can pick up the basic trick quite quickly. They can learn to read the oddly shaped lines and dots and squiggles as having specific meanings. But the more subtle problems become evident when we realize that this basic skill acquisition is only the beginning of the business of literacy. The more subtle problems are tied up with the kind and degree of meaning students can learn, and the problems extend even to such issues as teaching literacy so that students will enjoy engaging with it. If they don’t find that the skill provides rewards of pleasure, of course, it will not develop in the ways necessary for what we consider some of the central purposes of education.

This might seem like an excessively refined thing for a teacher to worry about while struggling with the problems of ensuring basic literacy in unsupportive conditions. Working with students whose families read little, or for whom the purposes of education play little role in the life around them, doesn’t often leave much time or mental space to dwell on how to make the experience return pleasure as well as utility to the student. The latter is often triumph enough.

Recent British experience gives a hint of why we shouldn’t consider this too refined a problem. Enormous efforts were made, and largely imposed on teachers, to increase literacy scores. They were, over a decade, quite successful. Britain moved upward in those international comparative tests. But another survey result found that British children still score much lower than others in terms of the amount of voluntary reading they do. Thus many countries that now score worse than Britain in basic literacy have much higher proportions of children who actually read for pleasure.

And that’s only one small slice of the problem, of course. The rest is connected to the enormous diversity of human knowledge and experience that is coded in symbols. The trick of literacy is one key to that great storehouse, but the storehouse has many inner doors and byways, and having the key to the front door allows one only into the front hall, not into any of the rich rooms that lead from it. Crude literacy tests often miss the subtle problem with which literacy has left us. They count as unqualified successes many cases where students can manage the coding and decoding skills that open the big front door of literacy’s storehouse without being equipped to go into the further rooms where its great delights and power are accessible.

Theoretic Thinking

Well, that’s the first quarter million years dealt with. We have learned two great tricks in the course of that time; one is communicating with oral language, and the other is communicating with symbols stored outside our bodies. More recently, we have learned a third great trick, which I’ll call theoretic thinking. This trick involves abstracting ideas and theories from the particulars of any area of knowledge and manipulating the abstractions according to certain rules and then applying the results of that theoretic thinking back to the particulars we started from. You will be using this trick while reading some parts of this book. One problem with this trick, which we are only too familiar with, is that it is easy to zoom off into abstractions that don’t adequately capture the particulars we want to think about, and then attempts to apply the results of the thinking are often worse than useless.

Doing this theoretic thinking well requires a person to begin by becoming very good at the first two tricks. The following chapters look at these great tricks in some detail—not analyzing them so much as illustrating what they bring with them and what they can tell us about how to educate our young, and not so young. These tricks are like master tools of our mental lives—like those screwdrivers that come with multiple bits designed to deal with many different kinds of screws. If language and literacy and theoretic thinking are three great multipurpose cognitive tools, it is also useful to look at a number of the smaller-scale tools that come with them. Or, in terms of the two metaphors I have been casually using so far, what are some of the multiple bits that can be fitted to these great tools, or what are the other keys that unlock the doors to the range of riches to which language and literacy and theoretic thinking provide initial access?

Frameworks for Teaching

Now these are very grand themes, yet this book is largely about principles of teaching and about practice, techniques, and frameworks for planning. But while it shows how the teacher can plan in such a way as to engage students’ imaginations routinely, the techniques and frameworks are just means to an end; they are not the ends in themselves. The frameworks that I describe and exemplify are of use because they embody the principles of imaginative education. They are to be seen as crutches to help one take the first steps if needed. They are to help move along and show how the principles can be relatively easily put into practice. Once the teacher becomes familiar with the principles, then the frameworks can be left behind. That is, they are not to become some straitjacket for planning, but they are useful as reminders of the principles and the array of cognitive tools available for engaging students’ imaginations in learning.

I should acknowledge that the drive for improved test scores is commonly seen as incompatible with developing students’ imaginations. In times when educational success is measured in terms of high scores on particular kinds of tests, it may seem that developing students’ imaginations is a luxury no teacher can afford. My aim here is to show how increased focus on students’ imaginations will lead to improvements in all measures of educational achievement, including the most basic standardized tests.

A Map of the Book

The three main chapters describe some of the characteristics, or “cognitive tools,” of students’ imaginations. The first set, described in Chapter One, is made up of the tools that come along with an oral language. Chapter Two deals with a set of tools that come along with literacy, and Chapter Three focuses on those that come along with theoretic thinking. This breakdown is not derived from a traditional developmental theory, in which the characteristics unfold at particular ages. Rather it is tied to a new kind of theory of educational development (see Egan, 1997) in which the acquisition of cognitive tools drives students’ educational progress. Most commonly the cognitive tools described in Chapter One will be found in young children before literacy begins to significantly influence their thinking. This tends to occur between ages seven and nine in Western societies, so Chapter One refers to children from the time they begin to use oral language fluently till about age seven, eight, or nine. The cognitive tools described in Chapter Two are most commonly found after literacy has become fluent, between roughly ages seven to nine and fourteen to sixteen in Western cultures. The third set of cognitive tools tends to be developed in Western cultures in the senior high school and college years, most fully by students who have most fully picked up the previous sets of tools.

After each of the three chapters I have inserted a “half” chapter. These are designed to show the practical relevance of the cognitive tools explored in the corresponding main chapter. In the “half” chapters I show samples of moving from the cognitive tools to frameworks that can guide imaginative planning and teaching.

Two final points to conclude a too-long introduction: This book is describing an approach to teaching, so throughout I will be looking at the classroom from the teacher’s perspective and emphasizing how teachers can use this material to make their work easier and more powerful. Similarly I will be focusing on what the teacher can do to encourage imaginative engagement and successful learning, and how lessons and units can be planned to achieve this end. This doesn’t mean that I see students as simply passive recipients of teachers’ work, nor that students can’t become involved in the shaping of lessons nor in contributing in all kinds of ways. For economy of space, however, I will write almost entirely from the teacher’s perspective, and leave it to you to see the ways in which what I am describing can be adapted to suit the active students we typically face in classrooms, especially if their imaginations are engaged in what they are learning.

And the final point is to assure you I will be describing what I mean by “cognitive tools” in more detail in the first chapter. And for that and other terms I use, the Glossary at the back of the book will provide a ready reference.

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